Advertising works. This comes as no surprise to many, but there is more to it. When ads are directed at children, they influence what kids eat and what they ask their parents to buy. More on that later.
The latest Canadian Community Health Survey shows that our more than a quarter (26 per cent) of our children are overweight or obese. The implications for their lives and to the community generally are staggering. The long term effects on health and increased likelihood for chronic disease make for frightening reading.
In the short term, overweight and obese children are not experiencing healthy growth and development. This includes setting healthy food and physical activity patterns that they will carry into their adult years. According to a 2010 fitness analysis of Canadian children and youth, "aerobic and musculoskeletal ability has significantly declined since 1981."
How wonderful it would be to be able to point a finger directly at "the cause" of these problems. We could then take specific action that would improve things. However, the problem is complex and multi-dimensional and no single factor can be reasoned to be causing it. At the same time, by attacking discrete, identifiable elements we know to be contributing, then we can a difference.
One such effort is being championed by the Dietitians of Canada (DC) who recently published their position on advertising food and beverages to children. They ascribe a portion of the childhood obesity problem to the effectiveness of advertising. The report properly identifies the efforts of industry self-regulation as commendable, but insufficient. While many Canadian food and beverage companies are supportive and involved, the majority are not; worse, much of the advertising comes in with programming from the U.S. thus not covered by agreements.
Many food and beverage advertisers voluntarily avoid direct ads to children or presenting them during children's programming. That is commendable, but much of a child's exposure to food and beverage advertising comes during prime time. The food ads they see are often for products that are high in calories, fat, sugar and salt.
Rigorous studies have demonstrated that children shown food ads will choose the advertised products at significantly higher rates compared to children who have not seen the ads. Furthermore, an Australian study found an association between the amount of TV viewing and positive attitudes towards, and higher intakes of 'unhealthy' foods.
Not only do children make those decisions, they also influence what their parents are buying. A 2008 study found that about a third of the time, children's influence was successful, a rate that increased as the child got older. The authors also noted that children's television viewing behaviour was the most important predictor of whether children would attempt to influence purchases.
The Dietitians of Canada call for better control over advertising of foods and beverages to children in all its forms including commercials, product placement, celebrity endorsements, sponsorships, cartoon characters and more. Controls should include locations as well, including schools, daycares, playgrounds, recreation facilities and such.
The ideal way to proceed would be to improve the self-regulation within the industry to make the responsible and effective changes required. Guidelines should derive from evidence-based science, and if voluntary codes do not work, government regulation should step in.